‘It’s not easy’ being The Connells

Photo courtesy of The Connells.

RICHMOND — As a child of the ’80s in Raleigh, The Connells were a household name. A band we knew that was going places.  A band the older kids and babysitters wouldn’t shut up about. Of course, I was too young to identify with Mike Connell’s world-weary, introspective lyrics, catch references local to Chapel Hill, or absorb the nuances of their hook-laden melodies and jangly guitar work. But I was a fan. Like the way a kid born in Boston blindly and unconditionally loves the Red Sox, I loved The Connells.  It wasn’t until my late twenties that I truly began to realize and appreciate their gift.

Now 38, I’ve seen the band live with more consistency than ever before…and I live in Richmond.  In each instance, The Connells, – still armed with core members, Mike Connell, brother David, and Doug McMillan – perform with unbridled vigor and seemingly adolescent joy to sold-out crowds of adoring fans.  Each show is a testament to the staying power and influence of their music.

With aspirations, no loftier than landing a gig at a bar or fraternity house, UNC students David Connell and John Shultz enlisted guitarist, songwriter, Mike Connell to jam with them at a studio on Lloyd Street in Carrboro.    In 1984, singer Doug McMillan joined the band, and The Connells were born. The years following saw the group gain national recognition as college radio darlings-, which landed them record deals with major labels. By 1995, they found unexpected stardom in Germany and England, eventually knocking the likes of Sting and Madonna off the European charts.

I recently caught up with Mike Connell to chat about the Triangle when The Connells were coming into their own, some ups and downs, and a few things in between:

NSJ: It’s been amazing seeing you guys in Richmond. What’s that been like?

MC: Playing the National is unbelievable.  I never thought we’d get back in a venue like that again. I’m marveled to look out and see so many people in such a cool venue and the response.  We’ve been so lucky all along about how forgiving and nice people are to us.  Those experiences are really amazing.

NSJ: Tell me about the first, actual Connells live performance?

MC: Oh, man.  It was at a private party in the Cameron Village Underground at a bar called the Bear’s Den.  Johnny Quest and The Pound Notes were playing, and since we were sharing a drummer with JQ (Peele Wimberley), they invited us on stage. We had seven songs at that point. No song titles.

NSJ: In conversations and interviews with people like Godfrey Cheshire and Bernie Reeves, the Village Underground in Raleigh stands out as something like no other.  What was your experience?

MC:  There was Café Déjà vu, The Frog and Nightgown, and The Pier.  Now, The Pier was the Club.  I saw everyone from Iggy Pop to bands from England like the 999.  The Go-Go’s were just starting out coming in from LA for something The Pier called “New Wave Monday Night.” It was awesome.

NSJ: Was it apparent to you and the band then at that moment that Raleigh and the Triangle was becoming a hotspot for music?

MC: No, it was all really just starting to happen largely because of your dad and Godfrey Cheshire.  I mean The Spectator had so much to do with what happened in Raleigh and for us.  We got the kind of jump start a lot of bands couldn’t because of the Spectator championing The Connells.

NSJ: What Triangle bands inspired you and the band when you were just starting out?

MC:  In ’84, The Bad Checks showed us the ropes. We were well aware of Arrogance, the DB’s and Let’s Active were huge influences, and The Pound Notes.  I’m sure I’m leaving a ton of people out.

NSJ: You were finishing law school, writing and performing, and your mother had just passed away. How did you balance that out and decide to move forward with the band as a career?

MC: It was my second year of law school, and it was like all these expectations of life are laid out, the path I am supposed to be following, I was angry about the situation, so I was like screw it, what, if anything, can happen with the music? So, I committed to that notion. In spring of ‘85, we had recorded with Don Dixon and Rod Abernathy to make Darker Days.  Things were just happening.   I finished law school, got the bar exam out of the way and said, “dad, thanks for getting me through college and law school, I’m gonna take a job with Schoolkids Records, selling records and see what’s gonna happen with the band.”  He was thrilled, of course…

NSJ: Can we talk about REM? I read there was a comparison, but I didn’t see it. Is that true?

MC: Yeah, there was a lot of that.  Those guys cast a huge shadow.  I was a huge fan. How could you not be?  Beautifully crafted songs with amazing vocals.  I was totally blown away by them. REM was one on of the few American bands I really came to love.  More influenced by British Bands.   If you like 3-4-minute pop songs that are, hopefully, melodic, that comparison’s gonna be inevitable. They demonstrated that homegrown bands from the South, small college towns, could make a big splash. They were freaking awesome.

NSJ: What happened with the song “74-75”? How did that become a hit in Europe?

MC:  We made (the album), Ring, in ‘93 with Lou Giordano who produced Hüsker Dü, The Goo Goo Dolls, you name it.  At this point our record label, TVT was the largest indie label in the US with bands like Nine Inch Nails. A subsidiary of EMI Records in Germany asked Steve Gotleib, President of TVT, to license Ring in Germany. Doubting Ring would have any success in Germany, Gotleib reluctantly agreed. Expecting to never exceed original projections of a few thousand units sold, Ring went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Man, I guess they knew what they were doing when they heard something in “74-75” those Germans would connect with.

NSJ: What was it about this song?

MC: I still do this day don’t know.  I think the tune is catchy enough, but it’s really kind of a snoozer.  But, man those guys knew what they were doing.  They flew me and Peel over for a press junket and all these DJ’s were congratulating us like it was a done deal. By January of ‘95… it did not take long to knock Sting and Madonna off the charts. It was crazy.

NSJ: What North Carolina Bands are you into these days?

MC: Bands Like Hiss Golden Messenger, Surrender Human, Scott Carle’s band, Bull City, The Roman Spring, goes without saying, the Avett Brothers.  Chatham County Line, The Veldt, Dillon Fence, Greg Humphrey’s Electric Trio, man there are too many to name.  Tift Merrit!

NSJ: What’s next for you guys?

MC: We are hoping for more shows in the spring and summer, but we’ll see how it goes.  I don’t want to jinx anything.

After the success of Darker Days, The Connells went on to record  Boylan Heights in 1987 with legendary NC producer Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, REM), Fun & Games in 1989 with Gary Smith (The Pixies), 1990’s One Simple Word in Whales  at the famed, Rockfield Studios, where Queen’s A Night at the Opera was recorded a few decades before. And, eventually Ring in 1993 which brought The Connell’s major success in Europe due largely to the reception in Germany of the single “74-75”, the appeal of which Mike Connells still doesn’t fully comprehend.

Following the immense reception of Ring, The Connells released  1996’s Weird Food and Devastation, Still Life in 1998, Old School Dropouts in 2001, and Stone Cold Yesterday: Best of The Connells in2016.